Study: Musical improvisation shuts down your brain’s “overthinking”

I admit, I’m a sucker for brain-scanning experiments. But this one is particularly intriguiging: A group of scientists scanned several jazz keyboardists while they improvised solos. The finding? The parts of the musicians’ brains that monitor their performance shut down, while the sections that organize “self-initiated thoughts and behaviors” were highly activated.

Soloing is, of course, one of the more spontaneous and creative moments in music. You have to follow the basic structure of the song while, on the fly, generating a new melody that picks up on — and plays off of — the individual performances of the other instruments. But the idea that improvising requires you to sort of stop scrutinizing yourself is incredibly interesting.

As a piece in Scientific Blogging notes …

… the researchers found that much of the change between improvisation and memorization occurred in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the frontal lobe of the brain that helps us think and problem-solve and that provides a sense of self. Interestingly, the large portion responsible for monitoring one’s performance (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) shuts down completely during improvisation, while the much smaller, centrally located region at the foremost part of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex) increases in activity. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in self-initiated thoughts and behaviors, and is very active when a person describes an event that has happened to him or makes up a story. The researchers explain that, just as over-thinking a jump shot can cause a basketball player to fall out of the zone and perform poorly, the suppression of inhibitory, self-monitoring brain mechanisms helps to promote the free flow of novel ideas and impulses. While this brain pattern is unusual, it resembles the pattern seen in people when they are dreaming.

That latter point is particularly lovely. I have to say, this corresponds perfectly with my own experience of improvising. I’ve played guitar, harmonica, and a bunch of other stringed instruments — banjo, etc. — for 20 years, and I often find that improvising for a half-hour or so at the end of the day is the single best way to clear my brain. I’ve always thought that this was because I work in words, and by the end of a long work day I crave doing something that’s completely nonverbal; and instrumental noodling perfectly fits that bill.

But now I’m wondering — maybe the deeper reason I enjoy it so much is that improvising shuts down my brain’s near-constant self-surveillance. My job, like many white-collar jobs, involves a lot of socializing (over the phone, anyway, in interviews), and enforced workplace socializing requires constant self-awareness, self-scrutiny and inhibition. This is pretty exhausting to maintain all day long. So maybe what I like about improvising on an instrument is that it frees me having to pay attention to myself.

I’d imagine Daniel Levitin would have some smart things to say about this.

(Thanks to Music Thing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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